Pencils Vs. Pixels is truly a love letter to the magic of animation, including 2D hand-drawn, and CGI animation. The documentary is narrated by Disney Legend, Ming-Na Wen, who is known for the voice of Mulan. She also portrayed my personal favorite, Melinda May, on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Pencils Vs. Pixels dives deep into the legacy of Disney animation and storytelling. I can guarantee that after watching this film, you will come out with a greater appreciation for animation, especially hand-drawn.
Pencils Vs Pixels Interview
I recently had the incredible opportunity to interview the directors of Pencils Vs. Pixels, Bay Dariz and Philwe Earnest. In this exclusive interview, we discuss the inspiration behind creating the documentary, Ming-Na Wen, the future of animation and more!
Can you tell us about the inspiration behind Pencils Vs. Pixels?
Phil: “I’m friends with John Pomroy, and a friend of a friend of mine and I were working on his bio, and he was telling us all these amazing stories. Stories we’ve never heard before, and it was just mind-blowing. So I just had this idea of making a documentary and I pitched it to my buddy Tom, and that’s how it got started. It’s just like wanting to tell the story. The heart behind the art form and the hardships that they went through, and where it’s going. That’s kind of how it sparked.”
Ming-Na Wen is the narrator. She’s such an icon. How did you decide on her to narrate Pencils Vs. Pixels?
Phil: “Early on I had an idea of narration in general for it, and I thought it would be really cool to have a cartoon character throughout the film. Ming-Na was the person that came to mind. I was like, ‘What do you think about Ming-Na?’ you know we can reach out to her because Tom and Tony(Bancroft), they’re really good friends with Ming-Na, and she was on board immediately. She loved the idea. She’s such a sweet person, like one of the nicest people. She did a video for my girls when we were doing the cartoon voiceovers. And she’s just very down to earth, an amazing personality, just super kind. That experience was amazing. I’m so glad we got her on the movie.”
Bay: “Ming-Na is just such a lovely soul and she elevated everything. One of the challenges with the film was we had these chapters of these benchmarks and these times and these themes. We needed something to tie it all together. Having her as our narrator and having her pop in here and there to tie the story together just really elevated it so much better. The edit just tremendously improved once we got her narration in there.”
What was the most fascinating or surprising thing you learned while making the film?
Bay: “One thing that was really surprising to me was how technology was brought in to animation to save money with xerography with a cap system to replace pen and ink departments, which were these huge departments. It was brought into to save money and keep the studio afloat. But then, once the computer was in there, it just grew, and grew, and grew, and eventually for a long time, Disney was hiding the fact they’re using computers to color their movies and to do these sequences. Then when The Lion King came out, they just had to admit that you know these herds of animals were done with computers. And everyone was kind of ready for it, but they were nervous to introduce the idea that computers were part of this story. So it was interesting to me how much the technology was brought in to save money and keep things afloat, and then eventually it just kept growing and overtook the hand-drawn animation, which nobody really thought was going to happen.”
Phil: “The overall hardship that everybody had when everything did change in the industry. And whenever the technology and the decisions between choosing to go down a more CG based journey. Just the heartache and what happened to some of these people. There’s so many stories, but some people went from animating big feature films to working in a grocery store. Just because that was their career, that was their passion, that’s what their talent was. So, that was heartbreaking to know that it had impacted so many people. We on a consumer side just see it as like, ‘ah! A new style!’ I love Toy Story, you know, we love CG animation, it looks cool, and we love 2D too, you know. But we don’t get that perspective from behind the scenes, of the tears that were involved. I know that affected Tom (Bancroft) so much. That was really hard on him, from talking about it. It’s just one of those things that I never knew about and I love that people can hear about that now and see that, because hopefully that gives inspiration to the younger community of animators who are having a hard time getting into it. They can see it’s not an easy road, but passion’s always there, and as long as they have that, they can keep going. And these animators that went through the hard time, they’re still doing it. And more opportunities opening up for them, as well, so that’s a good thing.
I really couldn’t believe that, you know, I just assumed that CGI wouldn’t have been a faster production time than the hand-drawn, but it said they end up being pretty much about the same duration, which really surprised me!
Bay: “Yeah. The same amount of money, the same amount of people, the same amount of time. It’s just them aesthetic choice that the studios were making because they thought it would make them more money.”
What do you feel makes hand-drawn animation so special?
Bay: “I think you can see the animator’s personality and their humanity in there. I mean if you get really nerdy about this you can tell which animator animated which characters because they have their own way of drawing different types of characters and different types of movements. So I think that’s something that you really can’t do with a computer. That’s the magic right there.”
Phil: “Yeah, it’s like their signature. Glen Keane was known for 3D like doing really awesome, like the Beast when they’re dancing, or Tarzan when he’s surfing on the trees. You know, that’s kind of what he’s known for. It’s personal. A lot of the stuff they’re doing comes from deeper within how they’re feeling emotionally. And each animator is an actor. They’re acting these things out. They’re feeling it. It’s very organic and there’s something very beautiful about that to know that every picture you’re seeing in that second is a thought of a thought through slaved over. It’s special.”
I definitely have a much deeper appreciation for hand-drawn animation after watching this. I just didn’t really understand what went into it, and you could just see that these people, this was their life and they really loved it. What do you see for the future for animation?
Phil: “Definitely more opportunity for everybody. The accessibility is going to be is already amazing and we’re going to see more stories, more content, we’re going to see more creative ideas. Definitely more co-existing projects, like Spider-Man and the Ninja Turtles with the 3D and the 2D merge together. Pete Docter said if you can draw you have such a headway on everything because you can explain things that you can’t really explain with words and text sometimes. He was like imagine people being able to explain things with animation just doing a quick thing on their iPad of like how they want something to look or jump quickly. Communicating is going to get a lot easier. So when people are doing storyboards, they’re going to be able to add a little stickman thing or whatever. That would normally take a week. They could do it at nighttime before bed and give the idea so it’s really cool.”
Bay: “I personally heard it first on The Momma Diaries. I think much like with music, with filmmaking, how people still want to record on analog tape and film with and film cameras. I think there’s going to be a resurgence of people wanting to do things the old ways. And with artistry, you know, you go to any farmers market in the world there’s people have these artisanal things they make. You can buy versions of it on Amazon made in the factory somewhere. But, there’s something about having humans make something and returning to those ways, that I think there’s going to be a resurgence of traditional animation. That’s my hot take.”
Thank you both so much. It was great meeting you, and I really loved it.
Bay: “It means the world when you said that you learned a lot and it deepened your appreciation. That’s the whole point of this movie, so that was really wonderful to hear.”
Watch the full interview below
Pencils Vs. Pixels is available to purchase on all major digital platforms November 7th.
Pencils Vs Pixels is a celebration of the unique magic of 2D hand-drawn animation and an exploration of how the Disney Renaissance of the late 1980s and early 1990s led to an animation boom that was quickly upended by the computer animation revolution that followed. Narrated by Ming-Na Wen, PENCILS VS PIXELS features many of the legendary artists who brought these now-classic films to life as they guide us through the last few decades of animation and into the future that’s yet to come.